The filmmakers of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography lab operate at the edge of documentary filmmaking, the vanguard of experimentation and formal exploration. It is possible both recognize their innovation and acknowledge that they have yet to create a master work of art. Fascinating as the aesthetic choices may be, their work thus far has yet to fully consummate the potential of their ideas.
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, the two most prominent directors of the filmmaking collective, most often hamstring their concepts by an insistence on the feature-length documentary form. When I first wrote up the group three years ago, I remarked that their film Leviathan (not to be confused with the Russian film of the same name) ought to be a short and Manakamana would excel in episodic form. Something similar is afoot with their latest project, Caniba, which is playing in TIFF’s Wavelengths section.
It’s puzzling to reconcile how Castaing-Taylor and Paravel simultaneously operate on such a high level of thoughtful craftsmanship and thematic heft while also strapping themselves into an aesthetic chastity belt, as if a film can only bear the weight of a single unifying idea. In Caniba, they take a page from the Tom Hooper playbook and present virtually all non-archival material in oppressive close-up, and they are most often extreme. The effect is decidedly discomfiting given their choice of subject: convicted cannibal Issei Sagawa. Be it his face bobbing in and out of focus or the barbed wire he wields to indulge his masochistic instincts, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel put it all right up in our faces. Have they never heard of negative space?
A title slide at the beginning of the film will have you know that Caniba does not endorse or condone cannibalism, a striking declaration for a work otherwise void of explicit authorial commentary. Plenty of other documentaries dealing with equally thorny subject matter do not feel the need for such a disclaimer, even when they tread far closer to sympathizing with something most abhor. It’s an odd start way to start for the filmmakers, who are otherwise assured in their scope of focus. (Perhaps a legal team insisted it be appended to the introduction.)
Otherwise, the film is bookended by a quote from the Gospels that casts the Christian sacrament of communication in a cannibalistic light and a French pop song. In between, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel treat viewers to any number of musings from Sagawa — and a few demonstrations of his desires, both carnal and carnivorous. Of course, Caniba never justifies any of Sagawa’s twisted world views, but the film does provide value by illuminating how he connects the dots between various cultural touchpoints and arrives at cannibalism as a legitimate avenue for desire fulfillment. Given the creative imagination of their subject, it’s a pity that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel never break out of their self-imposed artistic straightjacket to capture some of it. A documentary can maintain artistic integrity without becoming monotone, although such a discovery does not seem to interest these directors.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).